By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 13, 2007
MIAMI, Oct. 12 -- Somehow, it seemed only fitting that at the moment of Al Gore's triumph, George W. Bush would spend the day in Florida, scene of the fateful clash that propelled one to the presidency and the other to the Nobel Prize.
What a difference seven years makes. The winner of that struggle went on to capture the White House and to become a wartime leader now heading toward the final year of a struggling presidency. The loser went on to reinvent himself from cautious politician to hero of the activist left now honored as a man of peace.
For the Gore camp, it was a day of resurrection, a day to salve the wounds of history and to write another narrative that they hope will be as enduring as Florida. "We finally have their respective legacies," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and a veteran of the Clinton-Gore White House. "Bush earned the Iraq war, and Al Gore earned the Nobel Prize. Who knew Al Gore would one day thank the Supreme Court for their judgment?"
The White House stuck to polite, if restrained, congratulations. "Obviously, it's an important recognition, and we're sure the vice president is thrilled," spokesman Tony Fratto told reporters aboard Air Force One heading here Friday. Another senior official, commenting on the condition of anonymity to speak less diplomatically, said the Nobel Prize is nice, but the presidency is still better. "We're happy for him," the aide said, "but suspect he'd trade places before we would."
The paths traveled by these two men in the years since the recount battle of 2000 have taken them in surprising directions. They have both become crusaders in ways that might have been unimaginable during the 35 days they fought over hanging chads and butterfly ballots. Two candidates who presented themselves as safe stewards of a prosperous country have instead become evangelists for changing the world, albeit with drastically different visions.
They have spent those seven years shadowboxing, never reconciling. Gore has been one of Bush's most vociferous critics, while the White House has always looked on the former vice president with derision. Their dispute was implicitly on display, even on Friday. Just half an hour after Gore appeared before cameras to acknowledge the Nobel and to promote the cause of fighting climate change, Bush took the stage here for a speech on free trade -- the yin and yang of the global warming argument, protecting the environment or protecting the economy.
In fact, both men have argued that the world can do both, but they represent opposite sides on which priority to value more highly. In his speech here, Bush made no mention of the environment, instead pressing Congress to pass free trade agreements with Peru, Panama, Colombia and South Korea. "It's important for our country to understand trade yields prosperity, and prosperity means people will more likely be able to find work," he told business leaders.
Still, after investing little capital on global warming, Bush lately has tried to assert a new leadership role. Last month, he convened a conference in a bid to begin laying out a framework for an international pact to follow the 2012 expiration of the Kyoto Protocol, which Gore helped negotiate and which Bush renounced. But Bush offered no concrete proposal of his own.
"For a long time, he was trying to keep a low profile on climate change in hopes that the issue would move on," said Samuel Thernstrom, a former Bush environmental aide. "These days, he's showing more interest. . . . It's puzzling to me, though, that he made the effort to put it on the table but didn't put a proposal on the table that would change the discussion."
White House aides said Gore's Nobel would no more influence Bush on global warming than Jimmy Carter's 2002 prize did on the Iraq war. "I'm sure the president, and many Republicans, roll their eyes about how political the Nobel Peace Prize is becoming," said former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer. "For Al Gore, it's a high honor. But for what's probably a growing group of Americans, the Nobel Peace Prize comes coated with some strong political veneer."
Still, presidents through history have secretly yearned for the validation of the Nobel Peace Prize. The only one to win it in office was Theodore Roosevelt, and his medal remains on display at the White House. Interviewed by al-Arabiya television last week, Bush seemed to rue the idea that he is not seen as a man of peace, bristling when asked if, in fact, he is a "man of war."
"Oh, no, no," he said. "I believe the actions we have taken will make it more likely peace happens. I dream it will be -- the last thing I want to be is a president during war." Referring to his vision for spreading democracy, he said that "peace will succeed as more and more people become free."
Yet, if Bush ever dwells on what might have been, so, too, does the Gore team. "It's hard to look at the disaster of the past seven years and not believe that America would be better off if he had been president," said Ron Klain, Gore's former chief of staff. "Perhaps he has done more for climate change as a private citizen than he could have done as president, but I firmly believe that if Al Gore were president, America would not be at war, our standing in the world would be higher, our economy stronger and our civil liberties more secure."
No one will ever know.